William Cullen Bryant's "The Yellow Violet"

Updated on September 21, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

William Cullen Bryant


Interpretative reading of Bryant's " The Yellow Violet"

William Cullen Bryant’s “The Yellow Violet” is composed of eight rimed quatrains. Each quatrain adds a field to the portrait of spring that the speaker is celebrating in his song of beauty, modesty, alertness, and humility.

First Quatrain: “When beechen buds begin to swell”

The first quatrain finds the speaker establishing the period of time that the “yellow violet's modest bell” makes its appearance in the woods. At the same time, the blue-bird may be heard in all its glory, and all the buds on the trees are beginning to appear. The small bright yellow flower then makes its appearance, “peep[ing]” out from the leaves that had fallen two seasons before.

Second Quatrain: “Ere russet fields their green resume”

In the second quatrain, the speaker speaks to the flower, telling it about his fondness of encountering it and being able to detect it because of its “faint perfume” which is the only fragrance in “the virgin air.” Thrillingly, all this happens even before the fields, which are still brown from winter’s stay, have been ploughed and made ready to sprout their growing produce.

Third Quatrain: “Of all her train, the hands of Spring”

In the third quatrain, the speaker compliments the flower for being the earliest to bloom. He personifies spring saying “the hands of Spring / First plant thee in the watery mould.”

The speaker then remarks that he has even observed the small blossom, showing its bright head by “snow-bank’s edges cold.” The speaker thus suggests that the tiny flower is rugged and dauntless because it is able to endure such harsh weather conditions.

Fourth Quatrain: “Thy parent sun, who bade thee view”

The speaker then focuses on discipline. He dramatically portrays the sun's role in discipling the little flower as the violet's parent. Through personification, the speaker places the sun in the role of a parent instructing and guiding the child to become self-sufficient, strong, and persistent in the face of daunting obstacles.

The little flower through the sun's tough love has come to reflect the same feature of the "parent": its "own bright hue" is "streaked with jet thy glowing lip." The bright color of the flower reflects that of the sun, while at the same time featuring a strip of "jet" on her lip, signifying her individuality and independence.

Fifth Quatrain: “Yet slight thy form, and low thy seat”

Even in spite of the vigor and persistence of this robust little flower, the tiny blossom portrays its modest environment: “Yet slight thy form, and low thy seat, / And earthward bent thy gentle eye.” The flower is tiny; it grows low and close to the earth, as it appears to bow its head, not showing its “gentle eye.”

It is not likely that anyone casually passing by would even take note of the little flower. Other flowers in comparison would be deemed “loftier,” as they “are flaunting nigh.” This tiny blossom remains modest and inconspicuous.

Sixth Quatrain: “Oft, in the sunless April day”

The sixth quatrain finds the speaker offering further evidence to support his claim that the little flower is modest as he chafes at his own failure to observe it as other blossoms were asserting themselves: “Oft, in the sunless April day, / Thy early smile has stayed my walk; / But midst the gorgeous blooms of May, / I passed thee on thy humble stalk.”

The speaker confesses that when it is early spring and easy to see a tiny yellow blossom where no other flowers were showing themselves, he had gladly halted on his walk to take in the “smile” of the yellow violet. But after the “gorgeous blooms of May” had begun displaying their glory, he had neglected the little humble flower.

Seventh Quatrain: “So they, who climb to wealth, forget”

The speaker therefore takes note that human nature tends to overlook the lowly, the humble, and the modest. As they "climb to wealth," the human being becomes full of pride and self-satisfaction, failing to take notice of beauty in humble places. The speaker regrets that he has succumbed to such failure. He exhibits remorse that he "should ape the ways of pride."

Eighth Quatrain: “And when again the genial hour”

The speaker then promises the tiny yellow violet that he will no longer take the route of pride and obliviousness, but he will remember to observe and pay attention to the humble flower. He will look forward to welcoming,"the modest flower / That made the woods of April bright.”

Instead of overlooking again the little flower, he will overlook his pride, keep it in check, and while giving proper attention to the other "gorgeous blooms of May," he will pay proper homage to the little blossom that is always the very first one to presage the beauty of the season of growth.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes


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